Joe Butkovich, 65, a carpenter who co-owns the coffee shop with his son, is a Republican who voted for McCain in the 2008 primary but hasn't decided whom to support this time. "I see Santorum gaining steam," he says, but adds, "Romney is pretty smart and knows what he's doing."
One thing he doesn't appreciate: the negative ads Romney and his allies are airing on TV and radio. "It doesn't take long, does it?" he asks, shaking his head.
The mudslinger vs. the big spender
A Santorum ad portrays a Romney look-alike as a hit man wielding an automatic weapon that spews mud, though it doesn't leave a mark on a cardboard cutout of Santorum and eventually splatters mud on himself. "Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back, on full throttle," the narrator warns.
An ad aired by the pro-Romney super PAC labels Santorum a "big spender, Washington insider," raising doubts about how conservative Santorum really is. It notes he repeatedly voted to raise the debt limit, backed the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" earmark and "joined Hillary Clinton" on behalf of a bill that would have allowed convicted felons to regain their right to vote.
Romney also is running a gauzy biographical spot that features clips from his family's home movies. "I've got Michigan in my DNA," he declares in a campaign flier festooned with photos of him with his father, who was president of American Motors before being elected governor.
At a speech Thursday in Farmington Hills, where Gov. Rick Snyder endorsed him, Romney waxed on about his native state. "The trees are the right height," he declared without further explanation. "I like seeing the lakes."
His personal connections boost him in Michigan but also raise the stakes for him here. Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster based in Lansing, calls the primary a "pivotal watershed" for the Romney campaign. "If he wins, I think he will be perhaps unstoppable for the nomination," Mitchell says, and a loss would be equally decisive. "Romney has to win Michigan to keep going, even though he has all this money."
If Romney loses, "the grade gets considerably steeper," acknowledges Patterson, the Oakland County executive who backs him. To survive afterward, "he'd have to kick some serious butt on Super Tuesday."
Gingrich, appearing on Fox News Sunday, said a home-state loss by any contender would leave "a very, very badly weakened candidacy" -- one reason he's been campaigning in his home state of Georgia, a Super Tuesday primary.
Santorum has come on strong in Michigan by appealing to the most energized voters in the Republican coalition. On Feb. 7, a Mitchell/Rosetta Stone Poll of likely Republican primary voters in Michigan put Romney in the lead at 31%, Santorum third at 15%. One week later, the survey had Santorum at 34%, Romney at 25%.
In the poll, Santorum now significantly leads Romney among Tea Party supporters (41%-25%), very conservative voters (50%-19%) and evangelical Christians (37%-21%) -- all key groups.
Whatever happens in Michigan and in Arizona, which also votes Feb. 28, the battle for the Republican nomination is likely to be the most extended contest since 1976, in part because new GOP rules require states voting before April 1 to allocate delegates proportionately, not winner-take-all.
It could resemble the 1976 contest, when President Ford, the establishment candidate, was challenged by an insurgent Ronald Reagan. Not until the August convention in Kansas City did Ford finally clinch the nomination, only to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter in November.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum overlooks the Grand River here. At the Biggby Coffee Shop nearby, locals stream in to buy morning coffee and breakfast pastry.
"I lean toward Santorum right now," says Rob Jamula, 43, a banker. "I don't think Romney is a true Republican, and I think Santorum is." He has doubts about how conservative Romney really is and says his Mormon faith is a factor, too.
Kit Clark, 47, a computer systems administrator, doesn't know much about Santorum and says Gingrich strikes him as a "grumpy old man." He likes the fact that Romney's father was governor but worries about the struggle his campaign is having in Michigan. "If you don't pull your dad's home state," he muses, "it makes me think you must be in trouble."
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